AVOID EARTH, TURN ON RADIO

The Solar System is a real waste of space, all things considered. The wattage that Earth and the rest of the material contents of the system absorbs as a percentage of the energy emitted by the Sun overall is negligibly close to zero. A billion identical such planets could be inserted into the system just in a naive Klemperer Rosette, and that's a child's-play solution. Add a reasonably intelligent mathematician to the equation and you may be up to a trillion, still without substantial tidal problems or irritating occlusions on any of the outer Earths.

Cast out a map of the current Solar System and the really interesting bits are the space lanes, the cosmic transit network. These are invisible mathematical formations which indicate low-energy, high-efficiency routes between points in the System. For example, if you're travelling from Earth to Mars, there are various routes you can take and a certain bare minimum quantity of kinetic energy needed to convert into gravitational potential to push you that far out of the gravity well. For a given quantity of delta-vee (and a small hyper-economical people carrier like our subject today has a reasonable capacity for this before refuelling even if it can't accelerate too hard) there is also a shortest-transit-time route. Given lots of ships and lots of traffic (both people and cargo) there are certain routes which everybody is going to want to take at once. These morph over time, obviously; depending on where Earth and Mars are, it can take you two hours or thirteen.

Legally permissible routes are published by space transit authorities in the form of computer-consumable mathematical formulations. You have to stay on a legal route, the alternative is to completely program your own plan, which is (a) incredibly mathematically complex, (b) exceptionally dangerous if miscalculated (don't want to hit something, or fly too close to the Sun), (c) almost completely without official support if you run out of fuel and can't make another correction when you arrive and end up blasted out of the System entirely and (d) illegal for all of the above reasons. You might as well try to drive a car where there are no roads.

And because the routes are public and strictly finite in number everybody takes the same routes so they get busy. One has to allow for the safe distance between ships and when they're travelling at thousands of kilometres per second, the relative speeds involved become instakill dangerous, so a gap of several minutes is strictly mandated by flight computer regulations. So there are bottlenecks in space. The queue, for example, for the first dive past Phobos and back towards Luna can get long at peak seasons -- that is, when the two are on the same side of the Sun.

And this is the stuff that Jik-The-Junior loves: the maps and the computations and the big three-dimensional holographic model of the space lanes and the way it modulates and changes shape over time. When the family is travelling Jik-The-Senior usually gathers them around and they play videogames but Junior loves watching the screens and the readouts and the ship-exterior sensorium.

"Dad, what does 'AVOID EARTH, TURN ON RADIO' mean?"

They're thirty-five minutes out from Nairobi Line Top. Or were. "Give me the headset." Junior does this. This doesn't involve literally removing a piece of equipment from his head and handing it to his father (which is good, because up until a few years ago both of them would have needed shaved heads to interface with the equipment). The handover is electronic. Jik-The-Senior sends out a confirmation-of-receipt signal in response to a "hey, wake up and tell us you received this" data packet broadcast to all the ships in the inbound lane. This response is mandatory; having an intelligent human being sat in control of the ship is mandatory. Letting Junior take over is technically against the law but he is learning to fly and under strict instructions to hand stuff over if he gets the kind of message he just got, although none of them have ever seen that exact message.

J-Senior opens up the radio. This is not a euphemism. Radio travels at the speed of light. There is no relativity violation. Still, the broadcast includes audio and video. At least, this close to Earth, the news will be properly up-to-date. The big blue globe rolls underneath them.

"--you can see hundreds of people being escorted out of the liftport right now, of all ages and races, those people you see escorting the crowds are workers for the liftport ground control system, that's what you can tell by the insignia on their shoulders there. You can see, uh, automated surface transit trains entering the terminal also, we think that's for evacuation purposes too. There are ambulances lining up outside but from what we understand there is still very little in the way of official movement towards the Terminal Six building itself and, if, um, if what I was told just a few minutes ago is to be believed there still isn't. We're now being told that a safe distance of eight miles is being recommended but at this stage it is extremely unclear how safe this is if reached, nor how practical it is to evacuate to that distance."

"Thank you, the main story once again: Nairobi Tower's Electromagnetic Descent Control Room at Nairobi Line Top has been seized by a group of Gabonese militants. The EM descent controls have been shut down, freezing all lift passengers in transit between Liftport base and the High Nairobi terminal. Ships docked at Line Top have been instructed to leave for Lunar orbit and inbound traffic to all Earth spaceports have been instructed to do the same."

"I just want to interrupt you there: it looks like the plan is becoming clearer. As you know the secondary purpose of the entire Earth space elevator system is electricity generation: metal ores are mined from captured asteroids and sent down the elevator in canisters similar to the passenger cars. The descent generates kinetic energy which is used to drive electricity through a coil wrapped around the bulk of the space elevator, so at the same time as receiving ore at ground level the descent of the ore is slowed to a safe speed and most of the city of Nairobi is powered by the generated energy, including the spaceport. With these controls shut down and the automated safety interlocks defeated, the ore canisters will fall at an unchecked rate. As we feared this means there are probably something of the order of two hundred such ore canisters headed down here, each of them containing more than a hundred tonnes of ore in addition to the mass of the canisters themselves. Each of them essentially therefore constitutes a-- hold on, something's happening, do you see that?"

The scene is a flat white city built on top of a huge flat brown and green expanse but the city itself is not the interesting bit: the skyline is dominated by a white skyscraper protrusion with red-painted sections which goes all the way from the ground into space. It's a dizzying sight. The space-tree branches into ten distinct segments as it reaches ground level, each segment wired into a separate complete self-contained liftport terminal joining the main section, incidentally visually underlining the fact that the port is not built up from the ground but suspended from geostationary orbit. The tower is ridged and lined with slots where the external cars travel.

The camera which is now at least two miles from the liftport complex itself is trained as high into the sky as its focal length will manage. What it sees is a descending lift car, one of the extra-large yellow ore containers. It's sliding down one of the lift slots towards the complicated network where it'll get turned horizontal, shunted over towards a waiting rail car and transferred out for processing. But this one, a klick in altitude, is descending far too fast. In fact, this whole thing happens in a fraction of a second (and the hundred or so distinct videos of the event will have to be stitched together to uncover what exactly is happening), and the canister goes from a klick to zero in a fraction of a second. It hits ground level so fast that the parabolic arc which is supposed to turn it horizontal can't take the force and disconnects under the stress, and the canister hits the ground hard instead of, as you'd expect, being fired out across the city at incredible speed. Then there's an explosion.

"I--"

And then the shockwave hits the camera crew.

And they cut back to the news room. "I-- well, we've just lost contact with our camera crew, but if there are other canisters descending then they'll have had time to gather more speed than the previous one, so each impact will be successively larger. Um."

Jik calls for the ship to turn around, but in practical terms that means they will have to dive under the Earth and loop around back in the direction they came. That necessitates a close approach within visual range of the Halo itself. As they're making the correction and beginning to accelerate through, his sensorium locates more significant flashes down on the ground: the Brazilian Tower has been used to bomb its own base as well. As hours pass, the hair-thin yellow spindle which marks the Halo begins to crackle and change shape, and finally crumple like paper.

Discussion (16)

2010-11-13 18:27:35 by qntm:

1593 words. Running total is 25300 words. This is awful. Sorry. It was written in a great hurry under intense circumstances. I find it difficult to concentrate on writing in a straight line when there are other people in the room having conversations with me about different topics. I think the concept behind this one is sound, though: basically the idea is like 9/11 or 7/7 but in space so instead of "AVOID LONDON, TURN ON RADIO" you get "AVOID EARTH, TURN ON RADIO". I was going to handle this as a kind of virtual timeline but I couldn't get my head together. That idea is sound, but this version doesn't really have a lot that is worth salvaging if I ever decide to write it for real. Can't win 'em all. Words still count though.

2010-11-13 20:48:54 by skztr:

a space-faring civilization must, in order to be space-faring, have at least fifty readily-available methods of making the Earth uninhabitable.

2010-11-13 21:19:19 by Fjord:

Sam, I think you're being a bit too hard on yourself with this story. It's a good beginning, and you're right that it does need a few changes*, but in general it's a good story and it certainly leaves me wanting more - as has much of your output this November. I am thoroughly enjoying your NaNoWriMo project, and look forward to the rest! *(I understood it, and I'm sure that most of the regular readers of your fiction will as well, but I'm not sure how accessible it would be to someone who isn't quite as much into SF - and is therefore not familiar with the concept of a network of space elevators, which is the basis for the latter half of the story. A tad more exposition in that department wouldn't hurt, if done correctly.)

2010-11-13 22:00:09 by Gruntbuggly:

I don't think this one is anything to complain about. Certainly it doesn't have the complexity or depth of most of your writing, but that doesn't make it bad. It looks like the abridged first chapter of a book I would probably be entertained to read.

2010-11-14 08:09:48 by Snowyowl:

I liked it. It's not perfect, but if this is the worst you'll do this month it's still very good by NaNoWriMo standards.

2010-11-14 09:26:33 by eneekmot:

Sam, this is more readable, understandable, and relatable than a lot of the other stuff you've posted this month.

2010-11-18 15:02:37 by Col:

I liked it. It felt a bit like the start of something Peter Hamilton might write.

2010-11-19 16:56:37 by green:

Hey, this one is a lot better than Thaumic. :)

2011-01-09 22:59:01 by anonymous:

Sam you're so dreamy

2013-11-30 00:45:59 by Forehead:

I think you're missing an end parenthesis: "(b) exceptionally dangerous if miscalculated (don't want to hit something, or fly too close to the Sun," Still, whatever you thought of the story, the first paragraph at the very least did a good job of getting my attention. If you ever want to revisit this story, you might want to consider an alternate Solar System that actually has a billion habitable planets in it, and what life might be like with a billion habitable planets reachable without FTL.

2015-11-14 03:55:04 by Marthinwurer:

This is really good... but man, your timing was BAD.

2015-11-14 18:19:30 by qntm:

I wrote this in 2011. The bad timing is on the part of whoever linked you here, sorry. Glad you enjoyed it, anyway. :-/

2015-11-14 21:45:04 by David K. Storrs:

I like the idea of 9/11 in space, but this one made me go "huh." The idea is that the ore carriers are still connected to the tower, right? Because I would expect every canister to have a purely mechanical system (brakes, like on a normal elevator) that slows it down if it gets going to fast, and another system that engages the brakes if a simple camera on the floor detects an upcoming object that isn't the ground. I know you said that "the safety interlocks were disengaged", but this would need to be done on every individual car, which seems impractical.

2017-11-13 16:27:28 by Tahrey:

So what kind of speed are we talking about, and how big a bang does 100+ tonnes create when hitting the ground that fast? Interesting take on the colony drop thing, but as mooted by others, I can't help feeling that this seems to speak more of terrible corporate malpractice in setting things up in such an inherently dangerous way if nothing else. There are subway trains from a century ago that have fully mechanical, non-overrideable brake trips that can be activated simply by the train travelling too quickly past a check-point (protecting tight curves, caution signals, station approaches where the overrun-stop brake trip will only be able to prevent a crash if the train is travelling below a certain speed, etc), and those are vehicles of similar or lesser weight which don't tend to accelerate more than a fairly limited amount under gravity in most of their service area, are always on the level in stations, would need booster rockets in order to achieve an impact speed of more than about 90mph under any set of conditions, etc. Given that what we've got here is essentially an orbital-height version of the classic gravity driven Welsh mountain slate mine trackway (I assume an unspoken part is that the generated power is also partly used to send empty hoppers back into space, same as the slate pulling the emptied wagons back up the track on a counterweight system?), one assumes that normal safe railway practice would be followed, with the benefit of 300+ years of development and, indeed, previous disasters to learn from. So, many small canisters rather than a small number of really huge ones (to reduce the damage from any single impact), a descent structure that's only vertical for as short a distance as practical and with a turn-to-horizontal curve that's sufficiently large enough that it can accept the force of a freefalling canister without breaking up (and in fact, maybe generates power through tapping off the flow of hydraulic fluid through the dampers on which it rests - something which can still take effect without an active load, much like hydraulic or electro-resistive brakes using "dumb" dump-loads as either the primary or a backup option on heavy construction equipment, locomotives, etc), and a location and path that sees it come down to Earth some miles away, and at all times pointing away, from the attached major city. Instead of right in the middle of it... ;) Plus old school victorian absolutely automatic safety systems that cannot be remotely overridden, or in fact overridden at all - if they trigger falsely, then remedial action can only be taken *afterwards*, by physically releasing the tripped brake. IE, completely fail-safe. Though you might see some trouble further up the queue if the brakes all trip at the same place, and canisters start to pile up on each other... hopefully there can be a cascade where if one cock trips somewhere along the chain, all those behind it (or at least the immediately preceding one) are themselves set to stop the next canister to pass *them*, and a more-than-one-tripcock separation is ALWAYS kept at the input end...

2017-11-13 17:12:23 by Tahrey:

Plus if we're able to get between Mars and Earth in two hours minimum (presumably when in conjunction, and earth at aphelion, mars at perihelion, meaning ~54.6Mkm?), this not very strongly accelerating space-MPV (...which must accelerate about the same as any other craft, if they're operating an airlane-style minimum separation distance in an otherwise conga-like traffic stream?) must be pulling a lot of G. The speed you would reach after one hour at 1G (which would be your peak, as you'd then need to decelerate at 1G for an hour also) would be sufficient to get between Earth and Mars in 429 hours... well, probably 431, as the acceleration and deceleration at each end would mean additional transit time. In fact, it'd only be fast enough to get you between Earth and the Moon in the space of three (five?) hours. Just to do a Terra-Luna transit in 2 hours would likely need a steady 3G, flipping orientation halfway. Space is stupidly big after all. Let's say our passengers are able to withstand, with some technological help, 8G; 78.4m/s^2. After an hour of that we're covering 282.24km/s, or 1.016 million km/h. Not counting the extra time for the accel/decel phases, it's still going to take more than two *days* to cover the distance, AND that's assuming we take a dead straight line, counter to the story opener. Extend the acceleration period out. Let's subject them to it for four hours (twice). If the speed were constant, it'd be 13.4 hours overall. So this still isn't enough, though it's quite impressive for an interplanetary jag and it'd be cool to see if anyone attempts it for cargo delivery in my lifetime, using some exotic propulsion system. If we bear in mind that with continual acceleration (itself unrealistic because of the matters of ke = mv^2, and engine exhaust velocity) the average is actually only half the peak, then actual pace during the accel/decel zones is equivalent to the peak at 4G, or 8G for 2 hours each way. We need to extend the thrust period a lot to get minimum journey time therefore. If we up it twofold we're getting close, and into the realms of "good enough for an example". So, 8G for 8 hours in each direction. An average of about 4 million km/h. Actually I mentally miscalculated, that's a total transit time of 13h 40min, so we can lay off the gas a little. 6G instead, perhaps? Suddenly that's 143 hours and I'm having a minor mental crisis as I can't work out where I've gone wrong... Actually I suppose hitting the peak halfway, and having two periods of thrusting up to then back down from that speed, over which time we average about half the peak, is ultimately equivalent to travelling AT peak speed for half the time... So to cover the Earth-Mars journey in, say, 12 hours, we need to average 4.55 million km/h, equivalent to a peak of 9.10 million km/h (or 9.1 billion m/h) after 6 hours of thrust. Right? I hope... 9,100,000,000 m/h divided by 3600 = 2,527,778 m/s divided by (3600 x 6) = acceleration needed to reach that peak speed after 6 hours = 117.03 m/s^2 That divided by 9.8 = 11.94Gs of acceleration Which is just about the max the human body can withstand, with all our current technological enhancements, for any period more than a few seconds without almost instant death or at least serious damage. Forgive me if I'd prefer, say, 6Gs for 24 hours instead. Or maybe 3Gs for 48... again, two days is an OK travel time to go between two planets. It takes more than half that to just get to the other side of our own right now anyway. Still, anyway, if we have the tech to get between Earth and Mars in 2 days (or 12 hours for cargo, let's say), let alone 2 hours, and maybe 2 hours (30 mins, cargo?) from the moon (or by the story speeds, 2 to 24 minutes)... the thing I was trying to drive towards is that they could probably afford to space the canisters out somewhat, and not have as many of them queued up in an unstoppable line, because if they were far enough up to already be travelling at considerably more than 1km/s freefall once in visual range of the ground (taking a split second to crash down once spotted on camera, which if it's a couple miles out and looking upwards at, idk, 60 degrees or so, can probably see ~5 miles / ~8km up, the height of a cruising jumbo jet and about the limit that a railcar sized hopper would be visible), then they likely don't take very long descending the entire run normally anyhow, maybe a minute at most, and it should be possible to operate the line economically and whilst generating quite a lot of power with only maybe half a dozen canisters on the line, max. Though what might work better is a continual paternoster setup with the hoppers in an endless chain... you can still get a bit of a disaster by shutting off the generator brake, maybe, as the whole thing overspeeds, but then you'd have to make sure to infiltrate both ends so the normal controllers can't hit the emergency brake at the orbital end, or direct the flow of ore into the rising buckets (trying to aim as low as possible, instead of high) instead of the falling ones in an effort to try and resist the acceleration as best as possible... Let's just hope that the Brazilians heard the news and hit the emergency stop straight away "just in case" so there weren't as many canisters on the line when they were taken over too... (additionally: if ships can accelerate that fast, couldn't a police or military one have been flown to intercept the canister, laser a hole in the bottom so the ore flows out and disperses, then try to melt as much of the rest into slag or to distort its runners so it seizes on the track?) And yes, I know, first drafts and all :)

2018-08-01 01:20:27 by AridWaste:

@Tahrey: You make some very interesting points that seem to be well thought out. I especially like the part about having the ore containers always travelling *away* from the city when under load. But the thing that really stands out to me is that your comments are longer than the story itself.

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